Thursday 18 December 2014

Prelude to Revolution: Sultan Mahmud II and Ali Pasha of Ioannina

Today I am joined by the wonderful Kathryn Gauci, author of The Embroiderer. Without further ado I shall leave you in her estimable company and do enjoy the extract that follows this post!

The Embroiderer


Prelude to Revolution: Sultan Mahmud II and Ali Pasha of Ioannina

In the prologue to The Embroiderer, the heavily pregnant Artemis and her maid, Euphrosyne, fearing for their lives at the hands of the Turkish soldiers, head for sanctuary in the Monastery of Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. The year is 1822, almost a year after the outbreak of The Greek War of Independence. This act of desperation proves futile. Turkish soldiers break open the doors to the monastery and amidst a scene reminiscent of Dante’s inferno, the beautiful Artemis takes her own life by plunging a dagger into her heart whilst Euphrosyne throws herself over the monastery wall onto the rocks below. In the nearby village of Anavatos perched high on a precipitous cliff, villagers do the same thing, taking their children with them.  

Today it is hard for us to imagine the circumstances that engender such fear in a population that these women should choose to commit suicide rather than subjugate themselves to the wrath of the Turks. But in the year 1822, the Greeks were in open rebellion against their Ottoman overlords and no-one was in any doubt about what the Sultan’s forces were capable of to quell the insurrection. Prior to the outbreak of The Greek War of Independence, the Ottoman Empire seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. The Sultan, Mahmud II, is remembered as a cruel and bloodthirsty tyrant. It is said that he ordered all the females of his brother’s harem to be thrown into the Bosphorus and few travellers entered the Topkapi Palace without seeing a pile of ears and noses exposed in the niches at the gate. Dead bodies hanging from shop fronts or lying across the narrow streets were a common occurrence suggesting indifference to human suffering. Yet Sultan Mahmud II was neither cruel nor bloodthirsty. The terrible punishments he inflicted, not only on the Christian population but on Moslems as well, were simply the result of habit and policy. According to the historian, George Finley, whose accounts of the period were written shortly after the revolution, Mahmud actually restrained and subdued the “Oriental ferocity” which had for so long formed a characteristic of the government of the Sublime Porte. He went on to say that Mahmud was a thoughtful, stern and obstinate man with an inflexible will and not given to violent passions. Instead, he was a man shaped by the dangers of his time.

Sultan Mahmud II
Sultan Mahmud II

Sultan Mahmud II’s cousin, Selim III, who was dethroned in 1807, attempted to reform public administration and introduce military discipline in the Janissary Corps. Selim’s successor, Mustapha IV, lost his crown and his life after murdering Selim in order to retain them by a revolution which resulted in seating his younger brother, Mahmud, on the throne. The fate of his cousin and his brother warned him of the dangers in attempting reform, yet if they remained unchecked, the empire would disintegrate. Thus began a campaign of centralization. Sultan Mahmud II, the 30th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, ascended the throne in 1808 at the age of twenty-five. According to portraits of him, he wore an expression of sombre melancholy rather than stern severity. His face was sallow, and his naturally dark beard was artificially stained to a shining black. He was of medium build with short legs yet appeared tall when seated or on horseback. The government of the day was still locked a feudal system of government and with a lack of judicial administration, corruption was rife. Throughout the empire, lawless pashas and tribes lived in open rebellion. Everyone was looking out for himself and none more so than the infamous Ali Pasha of Ioannina. It was inevitable that these two rulers would clash.   

Ali Pasha was an Albanian who exhibited the qualities of an astute Albanian chieftain corrupted by exercising the despotic authority of a Turkish Pasha. His ancestors were Christians who converted to the Moslem faith in the fifteenth century. His father, Veli, was accused of poisoning his two eldest brothers to secure the chieftainship. Restless in mind and body, Ali grew up in the care of his mother. He was a man of contradictions. “By turns he was mild and cruel, and to gratify it there was no crime which he was not willing to perpetuate”. Cunning and ambitious, he set out to court foreign diplomats with the aim of ruling Northern Greece singlehandedly. Under his watch, Ioannina became the literary capital of the Greek nation; libraries, colleges and schools flourished and he protected priests who intrigued against the Sultan. But Ali’s cruelty horrified civilised Europe and the greatest compliment anyone could pay him was to praise his cruelty to his face, shuddering at his low, demoniacal laugh when his secretaries reminded him of how he had hung one man, impaled another and tortured a third. His vices were notorious and cruelty was metered out to both men and women. When the beautiful and elegant Euphrosyne – a woman who dismissed his passions – and fourteen other women were taken onto the lake at Ioannina and thrown overboard, public sympathy turned.

Ali Pasha and Kira Vassiliki by Paul Emil Jacobs
Ali Pasha and Kira Vassiliki by Paul Emil Jacobs

Deeply offended by the conduct of Ali and his sons who ruled over other pashaliks in Greece, Sultan Mahmud II demanded the annihilation of the traitor and sent out his army to retake Ali’s government. Eventually, after several years of battle, Ali was surrounded. On 5th February 1822, a meeting took place between Ali and Mohammed Pasha who had been appointed successor to the pashalik of the Morea (Peloponnese). When Ali rose to depart, the two viziers, being of equal rank, moved together towards the door with all the ceremonious politeness of Ottoman etiquette. Ali bowed to his visitor and seizing the moment, Mohammed drew out his hanjar – the long dagger worn in the girdle – and plunged it into Ali’s heart. Stepping calmly outside onto the gallery, he announced “Ali of Tebelin is dead” wherein the Capidji of the Porte entered the room, severed the head and carried it to the citadel where it was exhibited to the troops before being sent to Constantinople. Everywhere, the Albanians and Turks shouted “The dog, Kara Ali, is dead. Long live Khursid Pasha”. Ali’s head was exposed at the gate of the Topkapi for all to see. A few weeks later, four more heads occupied the same niche. They were the heads of his four sons and one grandson. 

As a consequence of internal struggles the Greeks seized the moment to rebel. With an army already fighting Ali Pasha, Sultan Mahmud brought over troops from Asia. On the third day of the outbreak and hearing about the Greek massacres against Moslems in Greece, he beheaded the dragoman of the Porte, several notables and finally, in an act which would turn all Orthodox Christians against him, hanged Patriarch Gregorius on Easter Sunday, 1821. Several other bishops were also executed. Resorting to the only way he knew how, Sultan Mahmud unleashed a reign of terror to crush the rebellion. The Greeks had nothing to lose. Their battle cry of “Freedom or Death” would be heard throughout Greece culminating six years later with the most decisive battle of the war – The Battle of Navarino – in which the Turkish fleet was defeated by the combined British, Russian and French fleets. 

Ali. Pasha's head being presented to Sultam Mahmud II
Ali. Pasha's head being presented to Sultam Mahmud II

Sultan Mahmud II died in 1839 but not before implementing major reforms. In 1828, he disbanded the hated Janissary Corps; in 1931 he abolished military fiefdoms and established a new army under his control trained by German instruction; and along with other major administrative reforms, he introduced compulsory primary education, established a medical school and sent students to Europe. Western dress was also introduced to the court during this time.  

Today, Ali Pasha’s cruelty is still talked about in Ioannina. Visitors are taken across the lake where the hapless women lost their lives and his body lies in a tomb in the old citadel. On the Island of Chios, reminders of Sultan Mahmud II’s revenge are everywhere. After so much tyranny and bloodshed, it is little wonder that these women chose to take their own lives. Had I lived then, I may well have done the same thing.

About the Author

Kathryn Gauci was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Loughborough College of Art and later at Kidderminster College of Art and Design where she specialised in carpet design and technology. After graduating, Kathryn spent a year in Vienna, Austria before moving to Greece where she worked as a carpet designer in Athens for six years. There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia.

Before turning to writing full-time, Kathryn ran her own textile design studio in Melbourne for over fifteen years, work which she enjoyed tremendously as it allowed her the luxury of travelling worldwide, often taking her off the beaten track and exploring other cultures. The Embroiderer is her first novel; a culmination of those wonderful years of design and travel, and especially of those glorious years in her youth living and working in Greece – a place that she is proud to call her spiritual home.

Visit Kathryn at
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The Embroiderer - An Extract

A glorious silver moon hangs over the Straits of Chios and the sea shines like a silver mirror. The Turkish fleet lies in the harbor and beyond on the horizon is the dark shadow of the Turkish mainland. Flashes of red light tinged with yellow illuminate the sky over Chios town, and a thin column of smoke ascends into the heavens. A screech owl swoops overhead, flapping his wings, disappearing into the shadows.

‘Look, Artemis,’ cries Euphrosyne. ‘The messenger of the Goddess Athena; it is a good omen.’

Artemis forces a smile. The light in her amethyst eyes intensifies.

‘It is not the destiny of this child to be born here,’ Euphrosyne adds. ‘Remember that the miraculous icon of the Virgin was found hanging from a myrtle bush nearby. It is she who will guide us to safety.’

The two women struggle in silence until finally, from the brow of the hill they see the monastery nestling amongst the cypress trees, protecting itself from the outside world. As they approach, they hear a soft humming noise. Gradually the noise becomes louder and they recognize the pitiful sound of wailing. The great wooden doors open to reveal a scene of abject human misery. Women, half-crazed with terror, shriek and cry; desperate children clutch their mother’s skirts, trembling in fear. A monk helps Artemis across the cobblestones, pushing his way through the desperate throng. Two thousand souls awaiting salvation are crammed inside the walls of this great Byzantine monastery.

‘Pray for us,’ they cry. ‘Pray to the Virgin.’

Finding a place in the church, Euphrosyne spreads out her woollen cloak on the ancient marble floor in preparation for the birth. Artemis sinks to her knees as the monk lays her down, blessing her forehead with the sign of the cross. With not a moment to spare, under the splendor of the eleventh century domes ablaze with gold mosaics, the child is born. The Christ Pantocrator and holy saints of the spiritual world gaze down on mother and child. Artemis looks up at the Virgin dressed in her shimmering blue robe, as Euphrosyne wraps the child in her warm shawl and hands it to her.

‘You see, Artemis,’ Euphrosyne says. ‘It was not her destiny to be born on a hillside. Look above you. In such pitiful conditions, to be born with all the saints of Christendom looking down on you for protection is something miraculous. God will watch over this child.’

The church door flies open. ‘They are here, the Turks are here,’ a woman screams.

Panic and fear grip everyone. A mother of two small children who are cowering against the wall faints, leaving her little ones crying helplessly. The monks reach for their guns.

‘Courage, my children, courage,’ they cry, as they run towards the gate. Artemis clasps Euphrosyne’s hand. ‘You must take the child and escape while there is still a chance.’

Euphrosyne looks at Artemis in horror. How can she leave her here alone, and to such a terrible fate? She had watched this woman grow from a child and blossom into the most beautiful woman in Chios. She owed her life to this family. Rescued from the slave market by Artemis’s father, that family was all she had in the world. Her own family had perished at the hands of the Turks in reprisals for Greek freedom fighters attacking a Turkish village. It was unthinkable to leave.

‘Euphrosyne,’ Artemis pleads. ‘I am begging you. I am too weak to move. My end is near but the child must live. You said that she is the child of destiny. Her life is in your hands.’

Artemis unties the embroidered silk sash from around her hair and secures it around the tiny bundle. Taking the precious locket from around her neck, she kisses it and places it over the child’s head, securing it between the folds of silk.

‘Go. Run as fast as you can; don’t look back. God be with you.’

Euphrosyne gathers the child in her arms and in a sea of tears runs to the door. Against Artemis’s wishes, she turns and takes one final look. Artemis seems to be searching for something in her clothing. She catches Euphrosyne’s eye.

‘Run,’ Artemis urges, ‘while there is time.’

Euphrosyne runs as fast as her weary bones can carry her. With blind determination, she makes her way to the far side of the monastery. Behind the monks’ houses stands a narrow stone stairway leading to the top of the outer wall. Behind her is Dante’s inferno. The screams of slaughter ring in her ears and the sounds of gunshots grow nearer. Reaching the upper ledge, Euphrosyne makes a rope from her sash and ties it to the small bundle. Carefully lowering it over the outer wall onto a soft patch of wild thyme, partially obscured from view by the bough of a wild fig tree, she lets the sash go. Turning around, she freezes. At the bottom of the stairs stands a Turk, yataghan in one hand and scimitar in the other. Euphrosyne runs along the ledge until she can run no more. Leaning against the wall, she turns her head. The Turk, his face and clothes smeared with blood, laughs at her. In defiance, she spits in his face.

‘The devil take you,’ she curses. 

Angrily, he raises his bloodied scimitar to strike but defiant to the end, Euphrosyne throws herself over the monastery wall. She falls to her death on the rocks. The remaining souls barricade themselves inside the church. Finally, the doors break open and the Turks, showing no mercy, slaughter all except for the young women destined for the slave markets. In the center of the church, under the Christ Pantocrator, lies Artemis, as if asleep, a cover pulled over her body. A Turkish officer stands over her and in the midst of so much devastation he pauses, catching his breath at such beauty. 

Korkma kadin. Sen benimsin! Fear not! You are mine,’ he leers, tearing
away the cover only to reveal her blood-soaked clothing. 

Like Euphrosyne, Artemis has cheated them out of killing her. She has plunged the jade dagger once given to her for protection by Yasim-Ali into her heart.

As the sun rises the next day, the sound of hoof beats galloping through the scrub becomes louder and louder. A blood-bay stallion approaches the thicket of wild fig. The horseman is agile. In an instant, he lifts the tiny bundle onto his saddle and gallops away through the trees. A Painted Lady butterfly flutters over the ground where the infant had lain. Nearby, the bright red wild tulips unfurl their petals to the morning sun and a quiet peace descends over the monastery.

This post copyright © Kathryn Gauci, 2014.


Alison Morton said...

Fascinating. On my Kindle already

Catherine Curzon said...